The deeply I’ve and skeptical nature of the Willy Lowman character of Death of a Salesman seemed to resonate with a post-World War II American public growing weary of the American Dream. In fact, the play was so well received that it was the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 1949 Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Antoinette Perry Award, the Donaldson Award, and the Theater Club Award (Miller, Martin, and Centola xiii). Strictly from the number of theater awards that Death of a Salesman took home, we can understand its immediate popularity on the American stage. Only a year after, Miller met with Hollywood film studios to discuss the film production of the play; the reproduction would go on to receive nominations in five Academy Awards.
The critics of Death of a Salesman did not take the play at face value, instead of reading in themes of universal significance into the plight of Willy Lowman. Lois Gordon wrote, “Willy has lived passionately for values to which he is committed, and he comes to find that they are false and inadequate… Inevitably, no matter what material heights a man succeeds to, his life is brief and his comprehension finite, while the universe remains infinite and incomprehensible” (274). In fact, one critic attributes the immediate popularity of the play to Arthur Miller’s portrayal of “Willy Lowman’s embodiment of the Everyman in American life who embraced the goal of achieving great wealth but found himself destroyed by it” (Horwitz and Wakefield 3).
The incredible influence of Death of a Salesman has also been tied to Miller’s capturing of the emerging American middle class and its unique social character (Blumberg). Regardless of whether the play actually portrays the tragedy of American life, the sudden rise to fame indicates a warm positive resonance of the play with the values and tastes of literary critics from its period. By understanding what about Death of the Salesman appealed so widely to these reviewers, we can gain insights into how literary merit was judged in the late 1940s, early 1950s.
Blumberg, Paul. “Sociology and Social Literature: Work Alienation in the Plays of Arthur Miller.” American Quarterly 21(2) (1969): 291-310.
Gordon, Lois. “Death of a Salesman: An Appreciation.” French, Warren. The Forties: Fiction, Drama, Poetry. Deland, FL: Everett-Edwards, 1969. 273-283.
Horwitz, Allan V., and Jerome C. Wakefield. The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Miller, Arthur, Robert A. Martin, and Steven R. Centola. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.